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Sunday, Oct. 26, 2003

MEDIA MIX

JT campaign aims to blunt war on smokers


Several weeks ago this newspaper published letters from non-Japanese readers who complained about a Japan Tobacco advertising campaign that depicts Western men and women with exaggerated noses sniffing cigarette smoke out of wine glasses. Two of the writers were angered by the image itself, saying that the big-nosed foreigner is an outdated and racist device that has no place in an advertising campaign.

This is true, though it's probably more true for a minority of the observers than the majority. When I first saw the ad (in its TV version), I assumed the folks with the long schnozzes were supposed to be Europeans, since their actions -- sniffing wine -- fit a certain stereotype. As a white male American I didn't feel particularly offended, just puzzled.

A third writer made an excellent point about the intended meaning of the ad, which was to publicize Japan Tobacco's supposed research into nonoffending smoke. This effort, according to the writer, was hypocritical since it didn't address the danger inherent in cigarette smoke itself.

The controversy hasn't been limited to readers of The Japan Times. Two weeks ago, there was a letter to the editor in the Asahi Shimbun by a man who questioned JT's research. He was concerned that JT is trying to eradicate the distinctive smell of cigarette smoke. He pointed out that natural gas has an odor added to it so people will know when there's a leak in their home. By the same token, cigarette smoke that isn't offensive but still contains the same toxins is actually more dangerous, since people won't try to avoid it.

There is a big difference between making the smell of cigarette smoke less unpleasant and getting rid of the smell altogether, and while there are various levels of Japanese-language comprehension at work here, the ad's specific purpose isn't very clear. But the same could be said for most of Japan Tobacco's public relations efforts.

Though JT has been following the worldwide trend for cigarette makers by diversifying into various fields, such as beverages and pharmaceuticals, it takes its name seriously. It's the nation's only cigarette company, and therefore believes it has an obligation to serve the nation's smokers. This approach, however, does not include warning smokers of dangers to their health. That's the job of others, and while the government can compel them to give warnings (in 2005, the warnings on cigarette packs will be made more dire), they won't do so voluntarily, as shown by their resolute refusal to acknowledge the causal link between smoking and lung disease. JT is not alone here. American and European cigarette makers have been denying the health risks of smoking for years, though Philip Morris has recently come out and actually said it is dangerous.

The difference is that JT is a semigovernmental corporation, and since it usually falls on the government to make people aware of potential health problems, the lack of a concerted effort on the part of the government to do so is seen as bureaucratic solidarity.

So the only real opposition that JT has is antismoking groups and local governments who have initiated nonsmoking policies in public places. For that reason, they are putting all their PR resources into making peace between the rival camps -- the smokers whom JT serves, and the antismokers who want to isolate them.

This strategy has made JT even more of an enabler for addicts. Foreign cigarette makers simply hook 'em young and leave it at that. JT wants to help its customers smoke throughout their lives, but the customers have to be responsible. JT is now educating people to be "good smokers." In a current TV spot, a young man with fashionably tousled hair is seen wandering through a crowded city street with an unlit cigarette in his hand and a worried expression on his face. Where can he smoke? Magically, a computer-generated "door" opens up in a mini-park. He goes through, lights up, and enjoys his cigarette with the peace of mind that he isn't bothering anyone.

In a similar ad campaign that appeared on trains last summer, three very famous, very hip media fixtures -- critics Seiko Ito and Asato Izumi, and designer Hajime Anzai -- are shown horsing around over the legend, "We don't throw our cigarette butts on the street." Both ads seem to address smokers, but they are aimed as much at nonsmokers.

Nonsmoking and cigarette-related antilittering ordinances are becoming more prevalent throughout Japan, so in a sense these two ads are putting the cart before the horse. The main point is to show everyone that JT is with the program, though the implication is that JT would prefer that these "manners" be voluntary rather than coerced.

In any case, all Japan Tobacco can do is devise makeshift solutions to support their customers in the face of persecution. In Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, which bans smoking in some areas, JT has set up smoking cafes and even mobile cars where people can get their fix if they can't make it in time to the next safe port-of-call.

And everyone with a stake is expected to chip in. Several weeks ago I was in Yamagata and observed teams of middle aged men in fluorescent green JT wind breakers picking butts off the street. When questioned if he was a volunteer, one of the men laughed and said, "Yes, sort of." They were all either employees of JT or cigarette retailers. They weren't being paid extra for their clean-up efforts; it was somehow considered part of their jobs. Anything to keep the peace.



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